PROVO — As BYU enters its second year of independence, and coach Bronco Mendenhall begins his eighth year at the helm, there are no signs of complacency around the Cougar football program.
If anything, there's an urgency, and a renewed desire, to take a big step forward.
"I'm viewing this as a new job, a new era," Mendenhall said. "The idea of being satisfied or staying status quo is the exact opposite of how I feel. While I'm not going to discount anything that we've done — it's been fantastic and remarkable — I'm after more. That's the main message to our program. … To put it bluntly, there's going to be more expected now than ever before."
During the offseason, the coaching staff spent considerable time at NFL team facilities in an attempt to learn more in order to help the program reach its potential.
Mendenhall has revamped several aspects of the program, most visibly the fall camp practice format (which included very little physical contact) and the players' conditioning, fitness and nutrition. Players have slimmed down and added lean muscle mass, and they spend a lot of time cooling down in ice tubs after practice. In addition, BYU has hired a nutritionist, Dan Wilcox, to help the players compete at their optimal weight and fitness level.
"It's something I thought I knew about, being an athlete. You hear about what to eat and what not to eat," said senior linebacker Brandon Ogletree. "But to have a dude give you a diet and it's planned out what to eat every two hours, it's been great. He's set goals with us. He stays on top of us every week. He checks our body fat, he checks our weight gain. As long as you do what he tells you to, the results are pretty sweet."
But will there be sweet results on the field?
Going into the season, which begins Thursday (8:15 p.m. MT, ESPN) at home against Washington State, BYU players are healthy, fit and exude a quiet confidence. That confidence has much to do with the fact there are 29 seniors on the roster, including the unquestioned team leader, quarterback Riley Nelson.
"The biggest difference between last year and this, hopefully, would be veteran leadership — just the fact that we have 29 seniors and guys who have been around the block," Nelson said. "We're all seniors now and we've all chosen to embrace that role. You can see that in the stats, but hopefully that will be manifest in our play."
In order to remain relevant in college football as an independent with no conference championship to play for, the Cougars know they must win.
Mendenhall expects a lot from his players. "Certainly, this team is capable of finishing in the top 10," he said during media day in June.
Now that Mendenhall has gone through fall camp, what does he see from his team?
"I like the talent and I like the depth," he said after practice last week. "Their execution and chemistry and consistency will really determine how they play. But I really like where they are. I feel comfortable at least at this point that we'll be in good shape."
How will he determine if this team has reached its potential?
"I know exactly the teams that I've coached well that got close to their potential and the ones that underachieved in relation to my standards," Mendenhall said. "I try to hold on to that more than the external measures. I have high expectations for this team. If it's 10 or 11 wins, that's one thing. But if it's in relation to what I think they can accomplish, I have a pretty clear idea of what I think that is. I don't gauge that by the number of wins."
The Cougars have won 10 or more games in five of Mendenhall's previous seven seasons. BYU posted a 10-3 record in its inaugural season as an independent in 2011, but clearly, Mendenhall believes the program can achieve much more.
"As the landscape shifts, it's great to see Bronco and his team continuing to be consistent," said athletic director Tom Holmoe. "Bronco and his staff will strive to keep climbing that mountain to get better and better. But we haven't fallen off. Some teams have. I'm most proud of the fact the program continues to grow amidst all the things that are changing."